Illustration of man and woman with their backs to the viewer
Illustration by Shay Li Hersch

We Are Already on Mars — and the Food Is Ready

The installation ‘Picnic on Mars’ by artist and designer Omer Polak raises serious questions about the culinary future that awaits us.

By Asaf Abir |

Watch: How Will Food Culture Change After We Reach the Point of No Return? A Panel Moderated by the Food Writer Asaf Abir.

The installation “Picnic on Mars” by artist and designer Omer Polak, currently on display at the Asif Gallery, raises elusive questions: What will we eat on Mars and what will that mean for our food culture? As one walks along through a short spaceship-like corridor, for a brief moment it seems like a glimpse not into the future, but to the past, into a gallery of memories. The elliptical “windows” set in the walls display a red sandy landscape with fossils of forgotten ingredients from earth — banana remains and cauliflower ruins. On the floor are close-up images of herbs and flowers, including a beetle climbing a stem, just like in a BBC nature film. These snippets do not seek to break nature photography records, but rather serve as a reminder of what we see when lying on the grass on a carefree day. They present memories of nature, vivid as a dream.

Food on Mars has gradually progressed from a geeky obsession to a mainstream hot topic, and a clause in business plans of tycoons such as Elon Musk, who is already investing billions in the privatization of the conquest of space. Research and development budgets are part of the renowned MIT Media Lab. For years, the MIT Space Exploration Initiative has been developing new types of food for long-distance space travel — food that is nutritious, safe, delicious, creative, completely biodegradable, innovative, and diverse enough to serve as a “local cuisine” in outer space, unrestricted by earthly local cultures. This year chickpea seeds were successfully germinated on the International Space Station, and in 2019 cotton was successfully germinated on the moon on board the Chinese moon lander Chang’e-4, which also carried potato seeds. The latter did not germinate, because after three days on the far side of the moon, the shadow covered the lander and everything froze. In short, everyone is on it.

But that’s because it’s the easier part of the challenge. It’s much harder to think about the bigger picture: food culture. If we find ourselves in an imaginary future in which traditions are severed, and scarcity and change are forced upon us, the problem will not be as simple as: What do we use for fertilizer?

White mesh wall with an airplane window that looks on to Mars
Photo by Ariel Efron

How will we as eaters — not the farmers — deal with the change in supply, accessibility, nature, and taste of both the most basic and rarest of ingredients? If a handful of possibilities are selected for us, or by us, how will that impact the entirety of human gastronomy? If the rest of the world has started taking agriculture in a sci-fi future seriously, there is also room to start a conversation about preparing for the future of food culture in a time and place, like the one Polak presents, when gastronomy is a memory.

This can even be a calm and optimistic conversation because it seems to me that the real picnic on Mars will look completely different from the installation. It will be familiar and pleasant to all of us. In fact, we are already in the midst of it.

The Food Industry Does Not Need to Change

I realized this when talking about the installation with Yaniv Gur-Arieh, Strauss’ head chef and a researcher and interpreter of local cuisine. He mentioned that when it comes to surprises from the future, our food system does not need any special preparation — it is already apocalyptic. And it is noticeable. We consume a significant portion of our calories in the form of strange futuristic food; invented foods from broken down processed ingredients, nutritionally depleted and seasoned with artificial flavors. According to a 2021 international survey, almost 40 percent of the calories consumed in Israel, and about 55 percent in the US, come from “ultra-processed” foods: those that have lost their integrity in favor of durability, a low price, and a sensory experience. Today’s crackers and frozen schnitzels are a futuristic solution — cheap and tasty empty calories. Today, approximately 68 million people will consume the exact same burger at McDonald’s. This solution already works.

How Will the Food System Handle the Decline in Food Supply on Earth or Another Planet?

The food system is already handling it. In fact, it thrives on it. A calorie that is reliable and accessible for all has always been its mission. And in order to achieve this, uniformity and limited choice are a necessity. Today, the majority of the world’s food is produced from several dozen edible plants and approximately six types of farm animals — from a choice of thousands available. Up until the industrial revolution there was an abundance of choice, yet we do not seem to notice their absence. We managed to create a culinary universe from the limited choice, surely we can create one from far less.

The food industry has helped push our world towards environmental disaster, but even in a dark future it will continue to sell palatable calories. McDonald’s will, likely, somehow go on. I guess, it could be worse. 

Will Food Disappear? We May Not Notice

Let us imagine a change in which machines will keep manufacturing crackers and schnitzels, but these will no longer be produced from the familiar white flour and the standard chicken, or the domesticated Gallus Domesticus. We will likely eat them, but will our palete notice the difference? How will a separation from staple foods impact our culinary lives? It is hard to guess, but past experience can provide us with some insights. Favorite foods have already become extinct, some even during our lifetime.

Jars of pantry items on a shelf with a hand holding popcorn kernels
Photo by Ariel Efron

Have you noticed the increasing headlines about the expected extinction of the banana? The sweet banana is the most popular fruit in the world, but only one variety of it can be found on the market. There are no sub-varieties, only replicas, many of them cultivated in barren orchards. Now, as is usually the case with monoculture agriculture, a nasty fungus, the “Achilles heel” of the strain, threatens to eradicate them from the world.

This has already happened once before: During the 1950s the one variety of bananas cultivated was infected by the same fungus’ great-great-grandmother, also known as Panama Disease. At the time, no other banana variety was found to be both resistant to the fungus and tasty. Instead, a durable yet bland banana variety, a failed cultivar that never managed to penetrate the market before, became the predominant variety — the one we know today, which now faces the same possible extinction.

The palate adapts. Cattle, poultry, and pork have also lost much of their flavor in the last century, much of it a result of the ongoing crusade against fat, which led to a global trend of leaner animals. Did anyone notice? (Some, but not many.) I can imagine a future in which the magic of meat is preserved — meat grown directly from stem cells and produced by machines. We will lose a lot, but when we chew, we will feel that we are missing only a little.

One Repulsive Mush for Everyone? In California, It’s a Hit

Humanity has succeeded in almost every apocalyptic culinary scenario imaginable. In movies, for example, future “hunger-foods” often look like homogenous meals with a porridge-like consistency, or mysterious repulsive protein cubes. Both appeared in the first installment of “The Matrix” and “Snowpiercer,” and both already exist and are consumed in our society.

In Silicon Valley, programmers live for weeks on Soylent, a nutritious smoothie that substitutes as an entire meal. It does not look anything like a gooey porridge, because real life is not a movie. It was preceded by Ensure, another meal replacement smoothie. And then there are “protein cubes,” too. In some U.S. prisons, inmates being punished for bad behavior are served Nutraloaf, an entire meal in the shape of a turd that I urge you to Google, and wonder if there really is a culinary dystopia stone that has been left unturned.

“Mad Max’s” Culinary Culture 

We have dealt with the Nutraloaves of the past, and we triumphed. During the early Middle Ages, the Black Plague killed approximately half of Europe’s population, destroying the economy and the food industry. We suffered anxiety from the volatile weather conditions and, when there was no choice, people survived on mud and wild grasses. Perhaps the living conditions did not resemble those of the abandoned astronaut played by Matt Damon in the film “The Martian,” in which he grows potatoes on Mars, but we did what we had to in order to survive in a rough world. And this occurred during an era of varietal abundance of raw ingredients, the exact opposite of today’s abundance. People relocated near swamps and forests to gather and grow their own food. In the first, hunger-stricken part of the Middle Ages, feudalism and the custom of Lenten fasts arose. People took on new varieties of wild legumes, fruits, uncultivated cereals and marsh plants. During a talk on the “Picnic on Mars” installation, sociologist Dr. Dafna Hirsch mentioned a recent case of culinary resourcefulness in the face of scarcity: the “ramen in prisons” phenomenon in the United States, in which cheap packages of instant ramen noodles are considered a strong currency and instigators of an entire regional cuisine, with dozens of preparation methods, recipes and original combinations, including gnocchi and crunchy peanut butter snacks. Culinary creativity is an impulse that will travel with us everywhere — even in darkness, even to an almost inconceivable future, where food is far more scarce than it is for many of us today, we will continue to strive for adventure. It is a primal need.

We Were Made to Eat the World

Mankind is full of contradictions. We are pursuers of comfort who cannot relax. We fear change, but we were born for it, especially when it comes to food. The human gustatory system is the most flexible and versatile in nature. We can chew and drink a wide range of textures. This is rare in the animal world, where a limited mobility of the jaw imposes narrower gastronomic choices. The crocodile’s guillotine mouth cannot chew at all.

Our sense of taste is designed to adapt to new worlds. Not only are we the only species to cook and eat meals, we are amongst the few able to enjoy them. Almost no animal can smell food while chewing. In most animals, the nose tracks down food while the tongue, capable of distinguishing between simple sweet and sour flavors, confirms whether it is safe to eat. Only humans can differentiate the taste of almonds from crushed tomatoes. The infinite world of taste is a human experience.

Taste probably accompanied and guided us as we left Africa to populate the rest of the world about 220,000 years ago, adapting to different climates and available foods. We can only assume that the prehistoric raw ingredients found in what is now Djibouti and Finland must have seemed like they were from two different planets. We were born with the ability and the urge to adapt to it all. Gastronomy and adaptation to new flavors are intrinsic to our nature. In fact, while reading this, you are already getting an itch for something new, are you not?

What other imaginary gastronomic threat from the future can intimidate us? Perhaps the most amorphous threat of all: the cultural one. Our eating culture, the meals, the table manners, have all evolved with us. They are a deep and essential part of us, so much so that it is difficult to contemplate the impact of losing them. But what if possible-future Mars conditions force us to cram in spartan capsules, changing the circumstances of convivial meals beyond recognition? If something in this ritual is forever broken, will we really change?

This, too, can be considered with optimism. Meals are not a solution. According to a popular theory among evolutionary researchers, meals are the foundation. It is thought super-apes with taste regions in the brains associated with certain occasions and geographical locations (ie. primates that participated in communal feasts) were the ones from which families, communities, and inter-relational societies evolved. Communal meals are not necessary to the survival of our species, they are simply the starting point.

There is no need to worry about the culinary culture a thousand years from now, even if it strikes us tomorrow. The delight of cooking, the uplifting flavors, and the comforting and convivial nature of food do not rely on environmental conditions. They stem from within us, and will wander with us. All we need to do is to keep enjoying food together for now — we’ll figure out how to restart everything from there.

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